Shadow Government

Religous freedom in Egypt

Two developments from the Middle East over the weekend show the fragility and uncertain direction of the "Arab Spring." First, this weekend's news from Egypt of attacks by Salafist Muslims on Coptic Christians, which reportedly left at least 12 people dead, underscores the threat of violent Islamists and religious intolerance to Egypt's political transition. Second, the ongoing protests in Syria against the Assad regime, and the West's tentative and feeble response, demonstrate that the popular desire for liberty in the region has not abated, even in the face of escalating violence.

In turn, these episodes show that the Obama Administration's challenges in responding to the Arab Spring fall into two categories. The first is developing an actual region-wide strategy. The administration's responses to the convulsions thus far have appeared as more ad hoc and reactive. It is one thing to acknowledge that the particular circumstances in each country are different, as are U.S. interests. It is another thing to have failed -- some five months now into this revolutionary season -- to have developed a strategic framework that helps determine U.S.  priorities and guide U.S. actions (or inactions, as the case may be) in any specific circumstance while helping steer the region towards a better future. To be sure it is no easy task developing a strategy while the ground is shifting with each week, but in a way the churning daily headlines only reinforce the need for a clear set of publicly declared strategic priorities that will also help guide day-to-day responses.  

This brings up the second type of challenge facing the US. That is identifying the most salient issues and tactics in each particular country that, even if far from the headlines, will do much in the coming months to determine the success or failure of consolidating the democratic transformation. These are the long term bread-and-butter issues such as institution building, cultivating civil society, supporting economic reform and growth, preventing the rise of extremist elements, encouraging rule of law, and strengthening political parties and electoral practices. It is on the question of these particular issues, and the US policy response, that the long-term fate of each country's Arab Spring will rest.

In Egypt one of these foremost issues is religious freedom. As I have written previously over at the Fikra Forum, "How a country treats its religious minorities reveals how free it truly is. Egypt's Coptic Christians, in particular, showed considerable patriotism, support for national unity, and commitment to reform in the recent protests and revolution. Yet, recent violence against some Coptic communities shows how fragile their place in the new Egypt remains." My colleagues at the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown's Berkley Center will soon be sharing their thoughts on the importance and peril of religious freedom in the new Egypt as well.

Erstwhile Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak played a cynical game of repressing Egyptian Islamists even as he also supported the repression of secular and pluralist democratic opposition voices and -- crucially -- Egypt's Christian minorities. Egyptian converts from Islam to Christianity, though very few in number, suffered particularly heinous treatment -- including imprisonment and sadistic torture -- at the hands of Mubarak's security forces.

As precarious as the Copt situation may be, religious freedom in Egypt means much more than just the conditions facing its religious minorities. Religious freedom in Egypt is also essential for Egypt's majority Muslim population to realize the possibility of democratic flourishing -- especially those Egyptian Muslims who embrace tolerance and reject religiously-inspired violence and violation of minority rights.

The most contested religious freedom legal and policy issues have long been evident in Egypt, yet now acquire a new salience. These include the equal treatment of all Egyptians irrespective of religious confession -- and thus the abolition of laws and regulations such as the Hamayouni ordinances on church buildings that single out the Christian community. Even more important, in both symbol and substance, will be ending the policy of listing a citizen's religion on national identity cards. This practice may appear to be benign but in fact has been used to foment religious discrimination and to disenfranchise any citizen who seeks to exercise their internationally-recognized right to change their religion.

What should the US be doing? President Obama articulated the broad principle in his Cairo speech of 2009 when he identified religious freedom as one of the core issues in the relationship between the United States and Muslim-majority countries: "People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it's being challenged in many different ways. Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith...Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together."

As inspiring as these principles were when President Obama first articulated them two years ago, they are even more urgently needed in Egypt now. Yet regrettably this White House has shown little capacity or political will to follow through on religious freedom promotion, in Egypt or elsewhere. To take the most vivid example, some 28 months in to the Administration, the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has only just this month been filled.

One position does not a policy make, however. Religious freedom promotion in a strategic country like Egypt can and should be done by a full range of US officials, from low level political officers to Ambassadors and Assistant Secretaries and up to Secretary Clinton and diplomat-in-chief President Obama. To begin this means that all US officials should make clear in their private and public statements to Egyptian officials that religious freedom protections are indispensable for a truly democratic Egypt. What of Islamist parties? Given the multiple Salafist groups and the persistent ambiguities in the Muslim Brotherhood's positions and goals, the US should focus on consistent principles rather than singling out any particular group for inclusion or exclusion in the political process. Specifically this will mean working with Egyptian legal, political, and religious leaders to affirm that all individuals and parties are welcome in the political process if they agree to abide by democratic principles such as respect for minority rights, pluralism and tolerance, peaceful resolution of differences, and Egypt's obligations under international human rights agreements. The US should be significantly increasing its funding to Egyptian civil society groups and political parties who support religious freedom, and can help plant its seeds in the fertile but fragile new soil of Egyptian democracy. Nor should this only be a US effort. In NATO leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron (the first Western head of government to visit Egypt after Mubarak's ouster) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, just to name two, could readily add their voices in support of religious freedom, and their government's resources as well.

In the coming years when we look back on Egypt in 2011, the fate of religious freedom will very likely be seen as having determined much of the country's subsequent course, for good or for ill.

Salafist Muslims on Coptic Christians

Shadow Government

Tracing the path to Abbottabad

President Obama rightly gets credit for authorizing a daring and successful ground raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. But Obama is not a lone hero: it is instructive to trace the path U.S. policy took to get here over the last 25 years to demonstrate how presidents are always building on the groundwork laid by predecessors.

Covert action is authorized by a Presidential Finding. Findings are rare; more often, presidents sign Memoranda of Notification (MON) to further extend or modify an existing Finding. That is why to find the relevant finding behind the Abbottabad strike, we have to go all the way back to one signed in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. The 1986 Finding describes the basic authorities for covert worldwide counterterrorism action by the military and intelligence community. The Finding was signed concurrently with the birth of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center (CTC), and finally started the slow gears of American bureaucracy churning against terrorists across the globe. Reagan was the first to make fighting terrorism official U.S. policy. (See Steve Coll's Ghost Wars).

President Bill Clinton signed a number of MONs further extending counterterrorism authorities, several specifically targeted at al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, according to the 9/11 Commission Report and Ghost Wars. The military and intelligence community designed several operations to either kill or capture bin Laden several times in the late 90s. Clinton was the first to make fighting al-Qaida U.S. policy.

President George W. Bush dramatically expanded the counterterrorism authorities with an expansive MON signed shortly after 9/11 (detailed in Woodward's Bush At War). The authorities enabled intelligence operatives and special operations forces to embed with the Afghan Northern Alliance and overthrow the Taliban in 2001 (see Gary Schroen's First In and Gary Berntsen's Jawbreaker). They also eventually gave birth to the rumored drone program (here is a fascinating website that attempts to track the rumored done strikes). But the drones are relevant for Abbottabad not because of their missiles, but because of their cameras and sensors; they've helped build up years and years of data about militants which analysts have been able to mine for the smallest detail, crucial in the hunt for bin Laden.

Perhaps most directly relevant for the road to Abbottabad, Bush made a few key changes to the counterterrorism programs in 2008. Frustrated by years of stalemate, he expanded the authorized target list, began to approve missions without prior Pakistani approval, and also authorized ground incursions into Pakistan to pursue al-Qaida. (see Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, Chapter 1). Abbottabad was not the first widely-reported Navy SEAL incursion into Pakistan. Bush authorized a raid on the town of Angor Adda in September 2008 in pursuit of al-Qaida targets. The raid went poorly -- it was undertaken during Ramadan, when civilians were awake and feasting at night-Pakistani officials lashed out, and ground incursions were halted. But the precedent was set.

By the time Obama was faced with the compound in Abbottabad, he had the option of going in because of the large and sophisticated counterterrorism infrastructure and legal authorities built by his predecessors over a quarter-century. What Obama gets credit for is keeping these tools in place after he took office, and making full use of them. Unlike Clinton and his National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, Obama actually authorized a strike against bin Laden when given the chance. And Obama was not deterred by the scandal of Angor Adda. That previous ground incursion proves that Obama took real risks when authorizing the Abbottabad strike. If Abbottabad had failed, it may have permanently ended the U.S.'s ability to go after terrorists inside Pakistan (as well as critically weakening the Obama presidency).

Presidents usually get more blame for the bad and more credit for the good that happens on their watch. Obama rightly deserves high praise for authorizing the Abbottabad mission. But Obama was right to give credit to the unnamed military and intelligence professionals whose tireless work over a decade made this victory possible. And I appreciated that Obama called President Clinton and, especially, President Bush to tell them the news on Sunday night. They share in this victory too.

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images